Claude Lévi-Strauss

The Raw and the Cooked

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Claude Levi-Strauss was a French anthropologist who advocated the doctrine of structuralism, arguing that the best way to understand human societies is to investigate the structures of its organization.



Off course, all of us have heard of Levis Jeans and many know of its founder Lévi Strauss from Bavaria, Germany. But we are not talking of him. Claude Levi-Strauss was a French anthropologist who advocated the doctrine of structuralism, arguing that the best way to understand human societies is to investigate the structures of its organization.

Claude Lévi-Strauss argued that the “savage” mind had the same structures as the “civilized” mind and that human characteristics are the same everywhere.These observations culminated in his famous book Tristes Tropiques, which positioned him as one of the central figures in the structuralist school of thought, where his ideas reached into fields including the humanities, sociology and philosophy. Structuralism has been defined as “the search for the underlying patterns of thought in all forms of human activity.

The most important reasons for his popularity are in his rejection of history and humanism, in his refusal to see Western civilization as privileged and unique, in his emphasis on form over content and in his insistence that the savage mind is equal to the civilized mind. Claude Levi-Strauss is credited with Structural Anthropology, which assumes that cultural forms are based on common underlying properties of the human mind. Levi-Strauss believed that human minds have certain characteristics which stem from the functions of the brain. These common mental structures lead people to think similarly, regardless of their society or cultural background. Since culture is formulated by human minds, which follows the same pattern of functions, all cultures are based on common general rules.

Claude Levi-Strauss was born on November 28, 1908 in Belgium as the son of an artist, and a member of an intellectual French Jewish family. Levi-Strauss studied at the University of Paris. From 1935-9 he was Professor at the University of Sao Paulo making several expeditions to central Brazil. Between 1942-1945 he was Professor at the New School for Social Research. In 1950 he became Director of Studies at the Ecole Practique des Hautes Etudes. In 1959 Levi-Strauss assumed the Chair of Social Anthroplogy at the College de France. His books include The Raw and the Cooked (my favourite)and The Savage Mind. Levi-Strauss did many things in his life including studying Law and Philosophy. He also did considerable reading of literary masterpieces, and was deeply immersed in classical and contemporary music.

His three “mistresses” in life were said to be Marxism, psychoanalysis and geology, but anthropology gave the scholar the opportunity to come into contact with the lives of men of different cultures, rather than just Western. His belief that the characteristics of man are everywhere identical was found after countless travels to Brazil and visits to North and South American Indian tribes. In fact, Levi-Strauss spent more than half his 59 years studying the behavior of the North and South American Indian tribes. The method he used to study the social organization of these tribes is called structuralism.

“Structuralism,” says Levi-Strauss, “is the search for unsuspected harmonies…”Levi-Strauss derived structuralism from a school of linguistics whose focus was not on the meaning of the word, but the patterns that the words form. Man passes from a natural to a cultural state as he uses language, learns to cook, etc… Structuralism considers that in the passage from natural to cultural, man obeys laws he does not invent it’s a mechanism of the human brain.

Levi-Strauss views man not as a privileged inhabitant of the universe, but as a passing species which will leave only a few faint traces of its passage when it becomes extinct.

Lévi-Strauss is called the “father of modern anthropology ” and  died on 30 October 2009 .